An imaginative landscape with characters emerging from open books, representing the creativity of fiction branded podcasts.

Fiction Branded Podcasts. Seriously, What’s the Deal?

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Discover How Fiction Branded Podcasts Can Transform Your Brand’s Storytelling

Branded podcasting has flirted with the subject of scripted audio fiction for years now – and here at JAR Audio — we think it’s officially time to get serious.

First off – a quick definition. Scripted audio fiction describes shows that are:

  • fully scripted by a fiction writer,
  • follow a plotline that is entirely “made up,” and
  • typically voiced actors
  • fully mixed with sound effects and music (i.e. not an audiobook). 

The podcasts themselves could fall under any number of fiction subgenres, some of the most popular being sci-fi and horror, but they are certainly not limited to those. One of my favorite fiction podcasts is Blackout, written by Scott Conroy, and starring the incredibly talented Rami Malek. Another example is Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor’s now classic  Welcome to NightVale, a clever show which has been called “the foundational institution of the fiction podcast genre” by Vulture.com.  

A person listening to a fiction branded podcast on a digital device, with story elements coming to life around them.

So what happens when brands wander into the fields of audio fiction?

It’s hard to say. We don’t have a lot of data on this because it doesn’t happen very often – unless you count media brands like Netflix or Prime Original – where stories are their primary product. But regular brands that make things like soap and shoelaces? Or offer services like, say, telecommunications or online therapy? When these brands set out to make a podcast, they tend to shy away from fiction. They see it as either being too costly to make, too far from their wheelhouse or too tricky to get right.

As a branded podcast company – we’ve had a few interesting nibbles in the fiction department. A solar energy company imagined a show about a world powered only by the sun. An employee intranet platform company came “this close” to greenlighting a comic soap opera about life in the world of internal communications. But so far – no bites. We’d like to see this change, which is why this year, we’re producing a scripted show for a children’s charity that leans into scripted fiction,  and collaborating on a fun, dystopian YA fiction podcast with a Canadian theatre company. Life is too short for boring podcasts – and if you want to stand out in the increasingly flooded field of podcasting – fiction is one way to do that.

One notable exception to the ambivalence of brands towards fiction podcasts is GE’s The Message, a brilliant branded sci-fi podcast sponsored by GE and written by New York Playwright Mac Rogers. Andy Goldberg, the former chief creative officer at GE, famously said:

“I don’t consider it advertising. It’s a podcast show that just happens to be produced by a brand instead of a network. I’m not saying, ‘Hey, go out and buy a jet engine.’ It’s a science fiction story to connect listeners with what the GE brand is about, without selling the GE brand.”

This show made it all the way to number 1 in the iTunes charts back in 2015. But that was 2015. Since then, further exploration by brands into the fiction podcast space has been slow.  This caution is understandable on the part of brands. Fiction IS daunting if you’ve never done it before. Even accomplished audio fiction storyteller JE Petersen of Voltage noted in a recent blog:

“As soon as you wander into fictional story land, you face a higher benchmark of expectation. Fiction has to be excellent, on some level, because modern humans are connoisseurs of storytelling. Other audio content formats might offer great storytelling, but it isn’t their only value proposition. Audio drama has nothing else – it lives or dies on the execution of a made-up story.”

No pressure, right?

Often when brands market their products the mission is clear: Explain the value of the product. If you make shoelaces, talk about why your shoelaces are the best. Many brands we work with find they can make the leap to interview-driven, non-fiction podcasting quite easily because it’s just one small step away from what they normally do: Talk about other things the people who buy the shoelaces care about.

By contrast — stepping into the world of fiction feels murkier. Understanding how a fiction story connects to a brand takes a bit of work. A common perception is that fiction is frivolous. The ROI is less immediately clear, but it exists nevertheless – and that’s what I really want to focus on here. 

So what is the ROI on branded fiction podcasts?  Let’s discuss!

Devoted fans:

People love fiction and this is good news for brands. Listeners think differently when they are consuming something they want to hear, vs. something they feel they ought to hear. They become much more open and receptive. As Kevin DeWalt notes in his blog on The ROI of Reading Fiction:

“I’m currently listening to the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik — historical fantasy novels about the role of dragons in 19th-century Napoleonic wars. So what is the ROI of reading about intelligent dragons in a modern military? […]  the stories have made me rethink the value of virtues like loyalty and honor. When I read for pleasure, my brain is more engaged than when I smash through the first 1/3 of a business book during an airplane takeoff.”

In this example – the writer notes that the fiction stories made him think about “the value of virtues like loyalty and honor.” Many brands – including shoelace brands — pride themselves on these same types of values. So the alignment between a story like this and a brand that values, say, customer loyalty, is obvious. It’s there to be embraced by any bold, forward-thinking, dragon-loving brand!

Smarter customers and staff:

Harry S. Truman once said, “Not All Readers Are Leaders, But All Leaders Are Readers”. Having a larger vocabulary, a sharper mind, and a heightened sense of empathy are known by-products of consuming fiction. So any brand interested in cultivating an audience, customer base, or staff full of intelligent, discerning leaders could do far worse than offer up some mind-expanding fiction. Well-written, layered, and meaningful fiction podcasts are one way to attract the leadership capabilities that your business needs.

A cozy workspace with a laptop and notebooks, ideal for creating fiction branded podcasts.

Control the story:

Audio Fiction is the most flexible of all storytelling genres. It can literally take you anywhere in a nanosecond. Outer reaches of the galaxy? Snap. Inside the minds of teenagers in Maryland? Snap. It can be tailored in any direction, towards any value or goal – that you see fit. Want to redirect your brand toward a younger audience? An audience that values out-of-the-box thinking and creative solutions? Why not consider an audience that also loves sci-fi? Fiction podcasts offer brands the ultimate chance to position themselves at the center of any story they choose. This is much different from a brand trying to align itself – after the fact – with a “real world” nonfiction story that has already broken. It’s the difference between jumping on a moving bandwagon – and building the wagon yourself.

Immersive worlds:

Audio fiction tends to rely on robust sound design to create a sense of place – often spoken of in podcasting circles as “the theatre of the mind.” The opportunity to cozy up to your audience in a fully immersive sound environment – demonstrating your dedication to things like quality, subtlety, and attention to detail – is extremely valuable. Brands who understand this can really stand to benefit. For instance, the exquisitely mixed show “Blackout” is presented by the high-end wireless audio brand Sonos. A perfect match – for obvious reasons.

Support the Arts:

Finally, probably the most straightforward reason for brands to support fiction podcasts is to show their support for the arts. If this is something that makes sense for your brand – a branded podcast is a way to demonstrate beneficence, generosity, and care for the artistic community, while also keeping an oar in when it comes to developing the original content – to ensure that the story “lands” in a place that aligns with your brand values. 

These are just a few examples of why we believe more brands should gird their proverbial loins and step up to the fiction plate. The cost of production does need to be factored in – as actors tend to like to get paid. But again – because fiction can be tailored – those costs can and should be kept manageable and transparent. You can write a very compelling, relatively modest show with only 3-5 characters, for example. If you can keep your casting modest – and record partially online – you can keep costs down. The fear of being “out of your depth” in the literary sense can be solved by hiring a branded podcast company like JAR that understands how to tell a great story, how to put together a team to tailor the writing to the right genre, how to strategically match a story with brand values, and how to get the word out to the right communities.  

So if you’re a brand thinking about getting into the podcasting space – ask yourself: what would happen if your podcast started with “Once Upon a Time”?

5 Takeaways on Branded Fiction Podcasts

  1. Scripted Audio Fiction Defined: Scripted audio fiction podcasts are fully scripted, plot-driven shows featuring voice actors, sound effects, and music, creating an immersive storytelling experience.
  2. Popular Fiction Podcasts: Examples like “Blackout” and “Welcome to NightVale” highlight the potential and popularity of fiction podcasts, setting a high standard for storytelling in the audio medium.
  3. Brand Hesitation: Many brands hesitate to produce fiction podcasts due to perceived high costs and complexity, despite the potential for strong audience engagement and brand alignment.
  4. ROI of Fiction Podcasts: Fiction podcasts can foster devoted fans, smarter customers and staff, and immersive worlds, making them valuable for brand storytelling and audience connection.
  5. Support for the Arts: Supporting fiction podcasts demonstrates a brand’s commitment to the arts, showcasing beneficence and alignment with creative values, while offering unique content that stands out in the podcast landscape.

By: Jen Moss, CCO

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